Aluminium is often looked at as the cheap option when buying a bike. It lacks the nostalgia factor of steel and can't match the performance of good carbon. But it still has its place in the market and it is well worth considering
In bike years, aluminium seems like a relatively young material. For most of the bicycle’s history steel has dominated. However, the aluminium bike does in fact date back over 120 years, with the first bike produced in the late 1800s – a far cry from the best aluminium bikes we have today.
Under the brand name ‘Lu-mi-num’ the frame was cast in a single piece in order to avoid having to use lugs to join the tubes together and to avoid welding, which wasn’t fully mastered for aluminium bicycle frames until the 1970s and didn’t become widespread until the 1980s (more on that here).
Aluminium first hit the road racing scene in the 1970s with both ALAN and Vitus using aluminium tubes bonded into lugs. Well made aluminium frames had a better stiffness-to-weight ratio than steel. Later, any fears about the integrity and durability of the bonded joints were allayed once TIG welding (Tungsten Inert Gas) was widely adopted.
However, aluminium’s time as the top material for road bikes was short lived: the Tour de France was only won from 1994 to 1998 on aluminium bikes. Before then every winning bike was made from steel and since 1999 every Tour has been won on carbon.
Aluminium outweighs the sale of carbon and steel
Before I set off with why the best aluminium bikes should still hold a place in everyone’s heart, I agree it is hard to see past its ‘cheap and cheerful’ image. Steel seems to hold this nostalgic memory of great, long, comfortable rides and bikes built by skilled frame builders who put their hearts and souls into their work.
And now, in the modern era, carbon-fibre is not only relatively wallet friendly but it can also be made much lighter than aluminium and with aerodynamically superior tube shapes.
However, consider that aluminium as a material far outweighs the sale of carbon and steel. The technology has not stood still, meaning that the best aluminium bikes shouldn’t be totally disregarded.
Aluminium is about half as strong and a third the weight of steel. When built into a bike aluminium tubes must be larger in diameter to offset this, but the aluminium bike will still be lighter than the steel one and just as stiff.
Aluminium is much more resistant to corrosion and should, if properly looked after, last a long time. However, even the best aluminium bikes will be vulnerable to failure over time. If weakened by a crash or impact it can crack and fail and can’t be repaired as easily as steel.
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Best aluminium bikes we’ve tested
Trek Emonda ALR 5 Disc
Read the review: Trek Emonda ALR 5 Disc
The Trek Emonda ALR 5 disc made it into our Editor’s Choice awards for 2018, and absolutely bowled us over with a frame that neither looks nor rides like aluminum.
Our size 52 weighed in at just 7.8kg, in part due to the ‘invisible weld technology’ which adds to stiffness and reduces weight. Slender seat stays and a lack of brake arch aid compliance too and the geometry is ‘H2’, which in Trek talk means relaxed.
This build, at under £1800, comes with a Shimano 105 groupset and hydraulic brakes.
Cannondale CAAD12 Ultegra
Read the review: Cannondale CAAD12 Ultegra
Believe to be the pioneers of aluminium it would be foolish not to include these guys. The CAAD range picks up from £1099.99 with Shimano Tiagra, right up to £3499.99 offering a range of rides to suit you and your needs. There’s rim and disc brake models on offer.
Cannondale and the CAAD12 range pushing the boundaries of what aluminium can do and offer major performance gains, whilst trying to limit aluminium road buzz.
This racey little number wouldn’t be out of place in a professional road race or cruising with a group of mates – it really is that good.
Canyon Endurace AL 7.0 disc
Read the review: Canyon Endurance AL 7.0 disc
As the AL name denotes, this is the highest-specced aluminium version of Canyon’s Endurace bike. Made with 6000 aluminium, the frame is light – the whole bike comes in at 8.2kg, which is actually lighter than some carbon bikes we’ve tested.
It’s a big claim but the German company has always managed to offer a staggering number of options at a mind-boggling number of price points. Happily, though, the lower price point and aluminium frame don’t necessarily mean a compromise in quality or enjoyment.
Specialized Allez Elite
Read the review: Specialized Allez E5 Elite
The Specialized Allez Elite forms part of the Allez range which has dominated the ‘first bike’ market for years.
In 2018 the Allez had a major rejig, and this continues into 2019. There’s a lesser emphasis on pure racing with a more ‘wide range’ geometry that should work for the majority of cyclists. Specialized says that this hasn’t detracted from its racing form, however, with the bike still able to adopt the slammed position, which can match its more aggressive partner that is the Tarmac.
B’Twin Ultra AF GF
Read review: B’Twin Ultra AF GF
Built with 6061 aluminium of “variable thickness” in Decathlon’s words (ie butted tubes) the B’Twin won’t ever worry the UCI weight limit of 6.8kg but it’s certainly no porker with our sized medium test model tipping the scales at 9kg with pedals – a respectable enough weight for an alu frame with a mid-range build.
Overall this is a good solid frame with the angular and square tube shapes adding lots of stiffness where it’s needed. The 27.2mm seatpost that comes with the Ultra 520 does a good job of adding comfort.
Boardman Road Sport
Read the reviews: Boardman Road Sport (previous model)
Boardman Road Sport is a triple butted 6061 alloy frame completed with a lightweight carbon fork and alloy steerer – typical at this price point. What is nice about this frame, however, is the smooth welds at the seatstay and head tube joins, which really helps make the entry-level bike look like a mid-level machine. It even has partial internal cable routing to help clean up the frame.
The ride of an aluminium frame
The USP of aluminium is its performance for price. The best aluminium bikes are far superior to steel, titanium and lower models of carbon in terms of performance and stiffness so racing them doesn’t present an issue.
As for the price itself, compared to steel, titanium and carbon, aluminium is far cheaper and easier to obtain and mass produce, meaning the cost saving is passed on to the customer. This also means a better end product with higher-grade componentry for a cheaper price. Sometimes it’s the difference between owning a Shimano 105 bike or a Shimano Ultegra bike for the same money but with a different frame material.
The best aluminium bikes benefit from good performance characteristics but the lower-end ones can still give the harsh ride that aluminium has always been criticised for. Aluminium bike frames struggle to absorb vibration in the way that steel or carbon ones can. Must-haves with all modern aluminium bikes are a decent full carbon fork and seatpost to help deflect that road buzz.
Types of aluminium and butted frames
Two most common types of aluminium used for bike frames are 6061 and 7005. 6061 is considered the better of the two for being easier and cheaper to work with. It is said that 6061 is a little lighter than 7005, though to the everyday rider we are not sure there is a huge difference.
Aluminium frames can come with different wall thicknesses too. Butted tubes are often talked about but not everyone knows what that means. A plain gauge tube will have the same wall thickness throughout the length of the tube.
A double butted tube will be slightly thinner in terms of wall thickness in the middle of the tube compared to the two ends. So the top tube will be thinner in the middle than it is at either end (at the head tube and by the seatpost). Triple-butted frames will have three different wall thicknesses along the length of tube, still being at its thinnest in the middle.
This allows the frame to be as light as possible without losing its stiffness.
Many frame manufacturers use hydroformed tubes. This technique is used to give the ability to change the shapes to less traditional styles and using fluid under high pressure allows this.